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Indonesian maids meeting up in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, on a Sunday to dance. (JG Photo/Andrea Fenn)
Indonesian Maids in Hong Kong Blur the Borders

in HONG KONG, 21/10/2010

Homosexuality among Indonesian domestic helpers abroad is a widespread phenomenon. According to Muthi Hidayati, a coordinator at the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, up to 20 percent of Indonesian females working in Hong Kong are lesbians. She said that this was due to their peculiar conditions of living in the Chinese territory.

“I like hip-hop because it is a very manly dance and dancing it makes me feel like a real boy.”

Argy is wearing high-top trainers, baggy black shorts, a black waistcoat and a tie wrapped around her neck like a scarf.

Her hair is swept in a bun to make it look shorter. She does not wear makeup or jewelry, except for a ropy chain necklace, from which dangles a metal ring.

“But of course, I like other kinds of dance too — jazz, modern and even traditional Indonesian,” she concedes.

Argy is one of many female Indonesian domestic helpers working in Hong Kong.

To her and her circle of friends, dancing is a way to blow off steam from the hardships of working as a maid in the city.

It is also one of the few ways that she is able to express her sexuality.

Homosexuality among Indonesian domestic helpers abroad is a widespread phenomenon.

According to Muthi Hidayati, a coordinator at the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, up to 20 percent of Indonesian females working in Hong Kong are lesbians.

She said that this was due to their peculiar conditions of living in the Chinese territory.

“House helpers live in a female-only society where it is often necessary to establish close bonds with female friends and workmates to get by,” Muthi said.

“At the same time, far away from their families and their culture, these young women feel that they can freely express their sexual orientation.”

Amy Sim, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Hong Kong, is of the opinion that the development of a lesbian identity by these young women often starts even before they even arrive on the job, possibly at the recruitment centers where they are trained.

According to Sim, there are good reasons for this phenomenon, even among women who naturally identify as heterosexual.

“These centers can be cold, lonely places. There have been instances of recruiters molesting women during the car ride to the center,” Sim said.

“When there, they can feel isolated, far away from their families, so they find solace in one another, sleeping together and taking collective baths.”

According to Sim, being a lesbian is not about gender transformation.

It is rather a form of role-playing as a consequence of imbalances in the Indonesian community in the city.

“I don’t know of any [lesbian] who actually wanted to change their sex surgically. Most just impersonate men because they think there should be a male in their group,” Sim said.

In Hong Kong, those like Argy, who assume a male role, call one another tomboys.

“Tomboys do not like other tomboys. They are boys, so they like girls,” Argy said. “And girls like us, because we are the boys in the group.”

Argy has a girlfriend, with whom she has been with for five years now.

Her sweetheart, who is feminine and shy, laughs and blushes when asked personal questions about their relationship.

She refused to give her name. While Argy talked, she served her food and filled her glass with water.

Wearing a white dress and makeup, she looked like Argy’s exact opposite.

Both Argy and her girlfriend are members of the Friendsters, one of the many competitive Indonesian dance groups in the city.

The troupe has almost 60 female members, who have been practicing and performing together for two years.

Last month they participated in the Leaders Competition, a dance contest catering to Indonesian women.

According to Elly Tyas, one of the founders of the Indonesian dance association, CK Funky Dancer, and organizer of the competition, there are 30 to 35 Indonesian dance groups in Hong Kong, each with at least 30 members.

“Many of the dancers are lesbian,” Elly said. “For these women, dancing is the only moment of relief in a life that can be lonely and sometimes even violent.”

Argy says she was once harassed by one of her employers. She talks about the incident easily, as if the violence was just a part of the job.

“The first job I had was to take care of this family’s 70-year-old grandfather. He was old and sick, but he still tried to put his hands on me several times,” she said, with a laugh.

“It is no big deal. I asked my agency to terminate the contract and was assigned to a new family.”

After this experience, Argy has been more fortunate. She has worked with the same employer for the past nine years and says that she has not been molested again.

Argy and other Indonesian maids meet up to dance at Victoria Park on Sundays, the official day off for domestic workers in Hong Kong.

They bring boom boxes and blankets and dance barefoot on the sport courts for hours.

When the music ends, they eat together and hold hands while relaxing.

Dance is not the only a form of unwinding after a tough work week.

According to Sim, the activity also reaffirms gender roles and identities within the group.

“The dances are often meant to be performed by both men and women, so tomboys assume the male roles,” she said.

At the Leaders Competition, several Indonesian women impersonate men, dressing up like ancient warriors or male courtiers, even going so far as wearing fake beards and moustaches.

“We have to perform a traditional dance meant to be performed by two men and two women.” said Todhi, who takes on the role of a male dancer.

“We don’t have Indonesian men here, so we have to make do with what we have.”

On stage, the dancers’ gender is completely camouflaged.

To those who have not seen them before dressing up, it would be impossible to tell that they are actually female.

At the event, Argy and the Friendsters took second place, adding to a long streak of dancing successes.

“We even won one competition of traditional Indonesian dance,” she said, while proudly listing all the dance awards she has won.

One irony of Argy’s situation, however, is that while she now feels at ease with the life and sexual identity that she has carved out in Hong Kong, a move back home to Indonesia might force her to rethink her identity once again.

According to Sim, in Indonesia lesbian women suffer from intense pressure from their families, who often plead with them to get married.

Some even return home to find that their families have arranged marriages for them.

As a consequence, even those who were tomboys in Hong Kong end up turning their backs to the lives they led abroad and settling into the traditional expectation of being a wife and having children.

But Argy remains defiant, saying she will remain a tomboy for life.

“My girlfriend? Of course she will marry a man because she is a girl,” Argy said.

“But my case is different. I am a tomboy and I will never like boys. Even when I go back to Indonesia, I will not marry.”

Argy’s girlfriend giggles when she hears this. Argy glances at her and frowns.

“She is also going to get married to a man,” her girlfriend said.

“She talks tough now, but when she goes back home, she will become a girl again. They all do.”

Both of them laugh, as if this was a discussion that they have had many times previously.

For now, this is how things are going to be, far away from home.

 

 
 
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